Today's New York Times reports that British Prime Minister David Cameron said that the "decades old policy of multi-culturalism" has encouraged "segregated communities" where "Islamic extremism can thrive". He criticized a policy in Britain and elsewhere in Europe that "encouraged Muslims and other immigrant groups to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream". He reportedly said that the "multi-culturalism policy had failed to promote a sense of common identity centered on values of human rights, democracy, social integration, and equality before the law". (NY Times, Feb. 6, 2011 p. 6).
Cameron's remarks remind me of what a friend and colleague of mine said he heard a French person say in denying that the French are prejudiced: that the French believe "anyone can become French". It seems to me that there is an assumption here that European cultures are superior to other cultures (Europeans uphold values of "human rights, democracy, social integration and equality before the law"). This is the assumption that served to rationalize and justify murder and theft of peoples' land under colonialism (By the way, where were concerns about human rights, democracy, social integration and equality before the law under colonial domination?). Did British colonists think they needed to integrate into the "mainstream" cultures of the lands into which they intruded? Why then should people from the formerly colonized lands integrate into "mainstream" British culture?
What Cameron is calling "multiculturalism" is, in my view, actually a way in which cultures can live together with mutual respect, rather than with the implicit assumption that there is a "standard" culture from which other cultures become "deviant", or a superior culture in relation to which other cultures show up as inferior. It is this lack of respect that, in my view, fosters extremism, not the demand that everyone be "like me".